Health Officials Recommend Flu Shots

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(Host) In 2009 and early 2010, more than 18,000 people died worldwide after contracting swine flu.   Like the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918, the H1N1 virus took an especially hard toll on young people. 

Because of that, Vermont health officials are recommending that just about everyone get a flu vaccination, as VPR’s Nina Keck reports.

(Keck) If you’re wondering whether or not to get a flu shot? Get one.  That’s according to Vermont Health Commissioner Wendy Davis, who says nearly everyone over the age of 6 months should be immunized.

(Davis) "Even healthy individuals in the youth age group, young adults, all of those folks, unfortunately, can have serious complications from the flu and annually, we do see deaths in all of those groups as well. Even in people without underlying health conditions."

(Keck) Unlike past years where there were shortages of flu vaccine, Davis says this year there’s plenty to go around.

(Davis) "We’ve actually received essentially all vaccines that we ordered from our immunization program  already, which is very unusual."

(Keck) The H1N1 form of swine flu, which hit so hard last year is a close descendant of the Spanish flu that caused an estimated 50 million deaths in 1918.  

Because of that, scientists have been studying that early virus closely, trying to understand how it spread and why it caused so many young people to die.  

David Morens is a epidemiologist with the National Institutes of Health. He says one of the things he and other researchers discovered is that the virus itself was not the killer.

(Morens) "It turns out, that What killed people in 1918 was not the influenza itself, but common bacteria that people carry in the nose and throat. And when people got infected with the influenza virus, it was kind of a 1-2 punch.  The combination of the virus and the bacteria resulted in a pneumonia that was often fatal."

(Keck) Morens says during that 1918 outbreak, both people and pigs became infected with the virus.  As the years passed, the virus in humans kept infecting people and kept mutating, as viruses do.  But because pigs don’t live very long, he says their strain of virus didn’t have a chance to mutate

(Morens) "So in a way it’s like the pig virus had been in a pig time capsule for 92 years and hadn’t changed."   

(Keck) So when people caught the swine flu virus last year, allegedly from pigs, the illness looked an awful lot like the 1918 Spanish influenza.  

And like its ancestor, it hit young people hard.   But David Morens says that’s not because the virus was especially strong or deadly.  He says it had had more to do with a person’s age.

(Morens) "So people who were exposed to earlier versions of that virus – the 1920 version, the 1930 version, the 1940 version, they were getting exposed to a virus that was more and more like the original 1918 virus and therefore they were more likely to be immune to this pig version of the virus that had been in a time capsule.   So this explains to us probably why older people had relative or absolute immunity to the brand new virus, because a part of that – a major part of that brand new virus they had seen before."

(Keck)  And while young people were hit hard by the last year’s flu, antibiotics and other medical advances not available 90 years ago, helped nearly all of them through it.  

For VPR news, I’m Nina Keck

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